MANATEE -- A report by IMG Academy showed that in a short time, the sports magnet and Manatee County were able to drive millions of eyeballs to MLS preseason coverage in Bradenton, but ticket sales remain a challenge.
In a three-month span, the Bradenton preseason games had 415 million impressions through billboards, digital ads, video streaming, traditional media and social media outlets exposing people to the area and the games, said Chris Ciaccio, vice president of marketing and community outreach for IMG Performance.
"With very little lead time, I'd like to think this is a success," Ciaccio said Monday to the Tourist Development Council, which committed $125,000 in bed taxes for a marketing agreement, later approved by the Manatee County Commissioners.
The academy hosted eight friendlies in February between Major League Soccer and international clubs as part of a tryout agreement to be the East Coast hub of Major League Soccer preseason with hopes of a multi-year deal hosting all Eastern Conference teams.
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The stands were also near capacity for several games in January and February, but many of those tickets were free to fans for games at IMG Academy, 5500 34th St. W.
"One thing I'd like to improve on is ticket sales," Ciaccio said.
IMG's multipurpose stadium can hold about 5,000 per game. Over the course of eight games, 5,079 people paid to watch preseason games, according to attendance figures shared by IMG Academy with Manatee County government. That would have been enough to have a paid sellout for the first game.
That comes to $28,206 in total revenue, and IMG is giving the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp., 25 percent, or $7,051.53 as a thank you.
"We'd like to write a bigger check to the EDC next year," Ciaccio said.
The largest paid turnout was for the Chicago Fire and DC United's Feb. 8 Saturday night match with 1,565 paid admissions and the lowest was a Wednesday afternoon game between University of South Florida and FC Dallas with 156 paid admission.
Ticket giveaways, to drive attendance, are a common occurrence in pro sports, especially for new events and for sports trying to gain exposure in new markets to help convert those fans into paying spectators.
"We want to create more of a fan experience. We probably gave away about 75 to 85 percent of all the tickets," Ciaccio said. "We had a number of community organizations, youth groups, soccer groups and a lot of families who were vacationing on the island who came by and take part in the MLS experience. I was really happy with the support."
IMG and county officials acknowledged the expanded preseason was challenging to put together based on the short lead time from MLS to bring everything together and coordinate teams.
"We were behind the eight ball a little bit because of the timing of getting an agreement with Major League Soccer," said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. While talks lasted throughout last year, the ink didn't dry on the contract until December, about a month before the preseason, Ciaccio said.
Despite those challenges and the late deal, one of the final additions to the preseason in Toronto FC turned out to be big for bringing out fans and coverage. The team has some of the most high-profile players, including U.S. World Cup star Michael Bradley, who made his Toronto FC debut in Bradenton.
"Their team was engaging all the time on social media, with posts out on Bradenton Beach, they were playing pick-up soccer and really embraced the local community and being here, which is exactly what we want," said Kim Berard, a spokeswoman for IMG Performance.
IMG officials and the convention bureau are now working to renegotiate a multiyear deal with hopes of seeking a recommendation for more funding at the June or August TDC meeting, Falcione said.
"We believe that in three years you may have a spring training doubleheader where you'll have a Major League Soccer spring training followed by a Major League Baseball spring training," he said.
More international teams could be in the mix for future preseasons.
"It's without question that this experience becomes much more interesting when you have the MLS and international clubs," Ciaccio said. "They believe it to be because they voiced it and said, 'We don't want to keep playing one another. We play each other all season long. If you could get more clubs here, we will bring more teams here.'"
One international team, Malmo FF, already committed to returning from Sweden, and have spent the last four years in the Bradenton area, he said. That team brought in 20 times more media impressions than any other MLS city, Ciaccio added.
The expanded MLS preseason in Bradenton was the first time MLS brought six teams to Bradenton, exclusively holding games at IMG instead of split between Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch. International, college and minor league teams also competed during the friendlies.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.